Science Made Simple: How Recycling Phones Helps Animals

My name is Ryan and I love science. Join me as I try to make tough science a little less confusing.

Follow along as I research the issues, untangle the mess, and figure out what you really need to know to help animals and the environment.


Today’s Topic: How Recycling Cell Phones Helps Animals

Short Version: “Ingredients” used to make your cell phone are destructively mined from sensitive wildlife areas. Recycling your old cell phone and other electronics like cameras and laptops can help reduce the harmful mining, allowing the materials to be reused in newer devices. You can drop your old cell phone off at the zoo!

This week, I’m taking a look at what’s inside your cell phone. Don’t worry, I’ll be focusing on the hardware, not all the selfies. I’ve found a few great articles on our topic that have been published in scientific journals that should help us get a better look at what is going on. Let’s make science simple! 

ResizeConfusing Science: “At the core of eastern Congo’s regional violence are the country’s rich mineral resources. Specifically, DRC contains substantial deposits of what are commonly known as the “3 Ts”: tungsten, tantalum, and tin, as well as gold (Enough Project, 2009).” (Veale, 2013)

What That Really Means: You might have heard the term “Congo”, which is often the used to talk about The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),  a country in Central Africa. These beautiful rainforests are  home to animals like chimpanzees, gorillas, okapis and mandrills. This area also holds lots of minerals underground which are very valuable all over the world.

Confusing Science: “More than 60% of tantalum is consumed by the electronics industry for use in electrical capacitors (Bauchman, 2010) and tin replaced lead for use in the circuitry of most electronics (Montgomery, 2011).” (Veale, 2013)

What That Really Means: Tantalum is an element that is used in all sorts of electronics, including your cell phone! Because cell phones and electronics are so popular, there is a high demand for tantalum in order to make new phones and electronics. Unfortunately, getting tantalum out of the ground isn’t easy or environmentally-friendly. Huge amounts of rainforest are cut down to make room for mining operations that are destructive to wildlife. The animals near the mines are forced out because their habitat has been destroyed and the area is stripped of nearly all wildlife.


Confusing Science: “Further, as roads cut into previously inaccessible forests, they will pave the way for an influx of commercial bushmeat hunting to supply major urban centers and foreign labor (Wilkie & Carpenter 1999; Cowlishaw et al. 2005; van Vliet et al. 2012), and wildlife traders, who supply the international trade in pets, ivory, or medicinal products (Stiles 2011; Luiselli et al. 2012; Maisels et al. 2013). These are major extinction threats to many large bodied mammals and traded species (Barnes 2002; Fa et al. 2005).” (Edwards et al., 2014)

cell phone recycle boxWhat That Really Means: To get deep into the rainforest where the materials like tantalum are, new roads have to be made. More trees have to be cut down, and less habitat is available for the animals. The sudden growth of people in these areas causes a rise in bushmeat hunting. Bushmeat hunting is when animals like chimpanzees, gorillas, and other rare or endangered animals are hunted for food. Even more troubling is that animals near the mining are trapped or killed so that they can be sold illegally around the world.

What Can YOU Do?: It’s simple! Recycling your old cell phone and other electronics like cameras and laptops can help protect the animals in these sensitive areas, because the materials from old electronics can be reused in newer devices, reducing the amount of mining needed. You can even drop your phone in our special cell phone recycling box at the zoo!

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more as I try to make science easier to understand. Never stop learning,


 Have a topic you’d like me to explore? Post it in the comments!


A Comprehensive Approach to Congo’s Conflict Minerals – Strategy Paper | Enough Project. (2009). Retrieved March 13, 2015, from

Barnes, R.F.W. (2002) The bushmeat boom and bust in West and Central Africa. Oryx 36, 236-242.

Bauchman, M. (2010, December 1). Tantalum Capacitor Market Update. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from

Cowlishaw, G., Mendelson, S. & Rowcliffe, J.M. (2005). Structure and operation of a bushmeat commodity chain in southwestern Ghana. Conserv. Biol. 19, 139-149.

Edwards, D. P., Sloan, S., Weng, L., Dirks, P., Sayer, J., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Mining and the African Environment. Conservation Letters7(3), 302-311. doi:10.1111/conl.12076

Fa, J.E., Ryan, S.F. & Bell, D.J. (2005). Hunting vulnerability, ecological characteristics and harvest rates of bushmeat species in afrotropical forests. Biol. Conserv. 121, 167-176.

Montgomery, M. (2011, January 25). Tantalum. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from

Roots of the Crisis – Congo. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2015, from

van Vliet, N., Nebesse, C., Gambalemoke, S., Akaibe, D. & Nasi, R. (2012). The bushmeat market in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo: implications for  conservation and food security. Oryx 46, 196-203.

Veale, E. (2013). Is There Blood on Your Hands-Free Device?: Examining Legislative Approaches to the Conflict Minerals Problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cardozo Journal Of International & Comparative Law21(2), 503-544.

Wilkie, D.S. & Carpenter, J.F. (1999). Bushmeat hunting in the Congo Basin: an assessment of impacts and options for mitigation. Biodiv. Conserv. 8, 927-955.

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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

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Brrrr. It’s cold out there! We have made the decision to close the Houston Zoo tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 17. Don’t worry, the animals are safe and warm in their night houses!

A limited number of staff from departments like Animal Programs, Safety and Security and Operations/Facilities will be onsite to perform essential services and have the Zoo ready for us to reopen Thursday morning.

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